Whether or not you like to make formal New Year’s resolutions, the end of the year is often a time of reflection, both about the year you’re about to leave behind you, and the changes you’d like to effect in your life as the New Year is beginning. Why is this worth doing, you might wonder? Well, for one thing, your chances of following through with a New Year’s resolution successfully are probably better than you think. Studies show that 71% of those who make a commitment to change actually do so in the first few weeks of January, and nearly 50% report continuous success 6 months later. When you really think about that, it suggests that simply creating an intention to change can be quite powerful. Some people shy away from making New Year’s resolutions because they think that “the changes won’t stick, so why bother…?” But in reality, making difficult changes is something that we often have to attempt a number of times before we turn that corner and maintain them. Research on New Year’s pledgers found that the majority of those who were able to make lasting changes made those pledges 5 or more years in a row. So if you start now, you might get it right down the line. And it doesn’t have to take 5 pledges…but if it does, then so be it. Better to make a shift that will make your life better than to allow yourself to be stuck and dissatisfied in the long term.
According to a study of over 400 people who made New Year’s Resolutions, the ones who were able to follow through used 4 strategies that set them apart from those who fell back into their old ways:
First, they rewarded themselves for success. In my new book, The Addiction Recovery Skills Workbook, there is an entire chapter devoted to this concept, because it really works. This is not a unique strategy to overcoming addictions – it is something that you can use to eliminate any habit that you are trying to break, or to begin a new, healthy habit (like exercising). Make reasonable and achievable goals for yourself, and then plan how you will reward yourself for following through with whatever you committed to. You can reward yourself with something simple, like doing something relaxing or enjoyable, like taking a bubble bath, or buying a little something for yourself - try downloading a song that you really like. Just make sure that you make the link clear in your mind, by telling yourself, “I’m doing this to reward myself because I made a positive change and I followed through with it.”
Second, they kept things around themselves to remind them not to give into the problem. Nowadays we don’t even need a piece of paper to remind ourselves of important things. You can put it in your notes on your cell phone: a list of the reasons why you committed to changing something, such as eliminating smoking, drinking, or overeating. Then look at it whenever you feel tempted. Examples of reasons to jot down for someone who is trying to lose weight could include “So that I can move around more easily” or “So that I can feel better about myself,” or, “I want to stop avoiding looking in the mirror.” If you don’t want to write it into your cell phone, put a sticky note on the refrigerator so that you’ll see it when you’re tempted to open it. Be sure that you pick reminders of the reasons that are most important to you, focusing on the results you can envision if you are successful. Envisioning those results will energize and motivate you if you remember to do so.
Third, they avoided situations that tempted them to engage in the problem behavior. There’s a saying that we use in addiction treatment, “Be smart, not strong.” It is very common, when people challenge themselves to make a major change, for them to measure their success by testing out their strength in a challenging situation. For someone who’s trying to quit drinking, the thought might go something like: “Let’s see, if I go to a bar where I’m surrounded by people who are drinking, whether I can be strong enough to say no.” The phrase, “Be smart, not strong” suggests that we do the opposite. Rather than testing out our willpower, which tempts us to return to our old ways, we can be smart and increase our chances of success by staying out of tempting situations to begin with. It is much more important to have repeated experiences of success with reaching your goal (such as not drinking), than it is to prove yourself strong. The more you succeed, the more motivated you will feel to keep it up.
Finally, they practiced positive thinking about their ability to change an old behavior or to begin a new and healthy one. If you don’t do this already, it is a really great habit, so start now! It is easy to get hung up on thinking about how hard it is to change and focus on all of the reasons it might not work. Although it is good to anticipate problems you might encounter when trying to change and making plans for how you will overcome them, dwelling on those problems for too long will not help you to change. In the study of New Year’s resolution pledgers, those who were less successful blamed or criticized themselves and found themselves wishing that the problem would just go away. This self-critical inner voice is not super motivating for most people; it is disempowering. Try thinking about times when you’ve survived hardships in your life. Try thinking about things that you’ve changed about yourself that were not so easy. Chances are, you’ve succeeded before, even if it isn’t with something you’re planning to tackle now. If you focus on your strengths, you will find more reasons to believe that change is possible, even though it is hard to achieve.
All of these concepts can be found with interactive exercises to practice them in my new book. Check it out on my website, www.drglasner.com, and Happy New Year! I hope that you’re able to find one meaningful goal and set the intention to meet it.